Posted by: jowanderer | January 10, 2008

Four proper winter cities


January 6, 2008

Four proper winter cities

The cities that do winter properly – not just ice skating, hot toddies and snow but with proper adventure right on the doorstep

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Boston shows us what real snow looks like

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You’ve chosen your winter city-break destination with care. You already know that the secret to a successful weekend is picking a city that does cold weather really well — a place with museums and monuments plumed with snow, piping-hot chocolate in cubbyhole cafes, ice-skating on frozen ponds and toasty restaurants crackling with log fires and candlelight.

Then your plane comes in to land, and you get a tantalising glimpse of the winter wonderland just beyond the city boundaries: pine forests and picture-book chalets, smoking chimneys and snowballing families, right there on the fringes of town. Even the postmen are on skis. It all looks gorgeous — and suddenly you fancy a piece of that ice-tipped idyll too.

Well, you can have it. We’ve found four cities that offer a spirit-lifting weekend, with an easy-to-reach outdoorsy day right on the doorstep — whether that means a quick blast of downhill skiing, a gentle glide across a frosted lake, or the chance to chuck yourself across an ice sheet on the end of a runaway kite.

These are the winter city breaks that offer a side order of countryside — and a little extra spice. Invest in some high-tog long johns, and follow our writers into a two-for-the-price-of-one winter break.


OUGHT to be good at winter. It’s a city that began with a snowball fight — the Boston Massacre, first flurry of the American revolution. And even when there’s no snow here, the sky is perma-squint blue, the atmosphere as crisp and clean-cut as a Harvard freshman.

Outdoors, chaps in tricorn hats lead costumed tours of the city’s 18th-century taverns, jolly trolleybuses trundle between the sights, and students wander the streets wearing non-ironic pompom hats and ice skates for necklaces. Indoors, the city is as snug and enveloping as your favourite Christmas cardie. Its culinary delicacies give you an idea: baked beans spiked with molasses, rib-sticking clam chowder and Boston cream pie.

After that lot, I’ll be needing a big, icy lungful of exercise, so I’ve signed up for my debut lesson in cross-country skiing, at the Weston Ski Track, 20 minutes outside town.

In the city: one ride on the subway is all it took me to fall in love with winter in Boston. The stations smell of popcorn and doughnuts, and the trains look like trams, shunting in with a clank and a wheeze, fairground style. You half expect Santa to get off and start handing out cookies.

Like the locals, you’ll walk pretty much everywhere. Start in the Back Bay district, where shards of silver skyscraper and cute colonial steeples rise together out of the cranberry-pink concrete, and boutiques sell Scandinavian fashion and twinkly jewellery at knockdown prices. Thanks to the exchange rate, Boston is a permanent January sale.

Round the corner is Boston Common, whose dapper lawns offer two cracks at ice-skating.

I usually stick to knocking over toddlers on Frog Pond (, which has skate hire and hot chocolate.

But there’s also a sort of off-piste option, a lake with a jungly island to visit and a bridge to triple-salchow under.

Even downtown Boston has a festive, funfair-ish feel. Faneuil Hall, the “Cradle of Liberty”, where Samuel Adams railed against British oppression, is now lined with wooden cribs selling handmade knick-knacks and novelty teas ( And, for seasonal spectacle, you won’t beat the gaudy gladiators bopping each other with sticks at the Boston Bruins ice-hockey arena (

For me, though, a winter weekend in Boston is planned around comfort food. I like to spend Friday night with a sauerbraten at Jacob Wirth’s bierkeller (Stuart Street;, where the piano man, Mel Stiller, has been leading communal karaoke for 20 years; Saturday lunchtime at the sickeningly sinful chocolate buffet at the Langham Hotel (Franklin Street;; and Saturday evening in a candlelit cavern called the Hungry I (Charles Street;, easily my favourite smoochy restaurant in America.

And Sunday dinner? A steaming bowl of chowder at the Union Oyster House (Union Street; My cockles have never been warmer.

In the snow: I spend Sunday afternoon at a top-secret spy school just west of town. At least, that’s what it looks like. Scores of sinewy Milk Tray men in black bodysuits sashay around a snowy compound, their faces frozen with determination.

In reality, this is the Weston Ski Track, where a goateed chap named Dan takes me through the rudiments of cross-country skiing. They run beginner sessions here every weekend until mid-March (£21, including ski hire; www., and it feels brilliantly invigorating after a couple of days spent eating cream pie in the city.

It’s worth coming here just for the walk to the ski park from the Riverside subway station, through a thumb-sized New England of clapboard houses and squirrel woods. The skiing is harder than the spies make it look, though: it involves strange, synchronised, slow-motion shunting of the arms and legs along a tramline track between the pines.

“Maximise the glide,” shouts Dan. And then: “Don’t fall in the river.”

Apparently, with practice, cross-country skiers can achieve a state of zen-like hyperawareness.

By the end of the lesson, I’m definitely falling over more gracefully.

Getting there: American Airlines (0207 365 0777,, Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007, com), and British Airways (0870 850 9850, all fly to Boston from Heathrow, with fares starting at about £300. Aer Lingus (0818 365000, flies from Dublin; from €442.

Where to stay: the Lenox (00 1 617-536 5300, is a snazzy grande dame hotel in Back Bay, with open fires in some bedrooms; doubles start at £95 in winter (or £143 with flickering logs). Beacon Hill Hotel and Bistro (617 723 7575, has a cosy New England-guesthouse feel, and winter-warming brunches; doubles start at £122. Alternatively, check out Boston’s burgeoning B&B scene at; doubles start at £45.

Tour operators: Vincent Crump travelled as a guest of Funway (0870 444 0770,, which has four nights, room-only, at the Lenox from £539pp, including flights and transfers. Alternatively, try the Vacations Group (01582 469661, ).


WINTER IN St Petersburg is about hot white nights and freezing white days, when iney — virgin snow and glinting ice — highlights the palaces, canals and cathedrals like exquisite make-up. It’s the time to wrap up like a Teletubby — leave the furs and stilettos to the locals — and yomp into its colonnaded, marbled, stuccoed heart.

However frequently you stop for a slug of vodka, however, the cold can get brutal, so this time I’ve decided to work up a sweat. After a couple of nights in town, I’m off to sample St Petersburg’s newest winter sport, kite-skiing — whose name requires little explanation. It is wind-assisted skiing or boarding, and it sounds complicated, extreme and, frankly, more than a little bit terrifying.

In the city: no town looks as chic in the snow as St Petersburg. I’ve spent whole days wandering streets washed by invigorating subzero light, the painted facades — the green Hermitage Museum, the pinky-orange Mikhailovsky Castle — stark against the white backcloth. My favourite winter stroll is beside the city’s frozen artery, the lumpy, lethal River Neva. Some locals — the “walruses” — smash the crust and plunge in, before sunbathing against the warm, black granite of the Peter and Paul Fortress. I prefer just to stare. The Thames is never this awesome.

I also go to St Petersburg for a party. The city is rediscovering its love of a winter knees-up, and stripping off (almost all of) your layers to head indoors is half the fun. At the Magrib nightclub (Nevsky Prospekt; 00 7 812-275 1255), New Russia flaunts itself: I’ve watched women check in their furs at the door and take their chiselled cheekbones and endless legs onto the dancefloor.

You can eat superb Uzbek food, including vodka-minted salmon, at the super-kitsch Karavan (Voznesensky Prospekt; 310 5678), or burrow into the cosy, sofa-strewn basement at The Idiot (Moika Embankment; 315 1675) for blini, caviar and Siberian mushrooms. And you can gorge on a cornucopian cultural banquet without worrying about the summer queues. Stride from the foreign masterpieces at the Hermitage ( to the monumental iconography at the Russian Museum (, before snoozing through La Sylphide at the Mussorgsky Opera Theatre (www.mussorgsky.

Alternatively, stand among headscarved babushkas in Kazan Cathedral, or make for suburban Petrodvorets and perspire at the Shuvalovka banya (Sankt-Peterburgskoe, 450 6451), where Nina has a welder’s forearms and a lethal sprig of birch. Sweat, spirituality and savage history: St Petersburg offers a singular winter break.

In the snow: a touch to the left, down a tad, and I’m off across the vast ice sheet, a man utterly out of control.

This is kite-skiing — and, incontrovertibly, I haven’t a clue how to do it.

Olga and Kirill Vonogovi teach three-hour classes off Vasilevsky Island (£60; 00 7 921 328 9951,, a 15-minute taxi hop from the city, where the sky and the frozen Gulf of Finland fuse into a hundred shades of grey. Unless you have prior experience on the piste, you’re unlikely to get up on skis in the first session, but you will, nonetheless, enjoy some exhilarating kite-flying.

Control is easily learnt — until the kite canopy hits 45 degrees, the power zone, when it feels like flooring a Lamborghini’s accelerator.

Lean back or you’ll fly face forwards and be dragged towards the surrounding forest — or Sweden. “Feel the wind,” Olga explained. “It will listen to you.” Not today it didn’t.

It’s apparently easier on skis, when you dig the edge in. I’ll take her word for it.

Getting there: BA (0870 850 9850, flies to St Petersburg from Heathrow and Rossiya (020 7493 4612, flies from Heathrow and Gatwick. Fares start at about £250.

UK passport-holders need a visa. If you book with a tour operator, it will provide a “letter of invitation”. If not, you can get one from the bigger tourist hotels. The tourist-visa fee is £45pp. For more information call the Russian embassy on 020 7499 1029 or visit

Where to stay: the Angleterre Hotel (00 7 812-494 5666, has huge, light-drenched rooms and exceptional views over snow-coated St Isaac’s Cathedral; doubles from £193. Tasteful and friendly Casa Leto (600 1096, is a cooler option; doubles from £106. Or feel the historic weight of a St Petersburg winter at the early-19th-century Pushka Inn (312 0913,, next door to Pushkin’s old apartment; doubles from £79.

Tour operators: Ian Belcher travelled as a guest of Baltic Holidays (0845 070 5711,, which has three nights at the four-star Hotel Angleterre for £565pp, including flights, The company can arrange kite-skiing. Or try Scott’s Tours (020 7383 5353,


THE CITIZENS of Stockholm are so fixated on their long summer days that they sometimes struggle to recall precisely what they do all winter. Then, on reflection, a litany of cold-climate pleasures emerges — ice-skating between the islands, crisp walks in the rolling parks, underground cafes serving insulating waffles and cocoa, steamy bars, art-gallery strolls and — this being Stockholm — an unflagging dedication to shopping. Now there’s even a spot of downhill skiing, right there at the end of the Metro line, which I fully intend to avail myself of.

It seems that, without really noticing, Stockholmers have an absolute winter’s ball.

You should politely — and, my God, are these people polite — ask if you can join them.

In the city: we followed the lamplight through the blackness, the only sound our footsteps flattening the snow. The building reared up ahead, glowing — but inside was shadowed. We found ourselves all but alone in the cavernous space, gawping at the caged beast. The Vasa, the mightiest warship Sweden ever built — and, sadly, the least buoyant.

It sank in seconds, but lives on now, its museum ( drawing thousands throughout Stockholm’s balmy, busy summer. Choose winter, though, and this stunning shipwreck, just like all the booty of this royal city, can be yours pretty much alone.

Their famous civility — often misread as standoffishness — means that Stockholmers can gather against the winter chill without getting cabin fever.

The best example of this is the inspirational Kulturhuset, at Sergels Torg, an art gallery, family playground, restaurant, chess arena and more. It’s a wonderful place to wander, and to witness that whole “Scandinavian society” thing. Admission is free.

To get a taste of the Swedes’ other obsession — design — visit the wonderful refurbished Moderna Museet gallery, on Skeppsholmen island (, or head to the trendy SoFo shopping district, on Sodermalm, to pick up ingenious solutions to domestic problems that you never knew you had. At last, an electric egg cup. . .

The best of winter here, though, is found on Djurgarden, the city’s park island, where locals come for swift Sunday strolls amid the gnarled forests and snow-clad meadows (a 20-minute ferry from the Slussen terminal).

After a tramp through the whiteness, it’s time for another Stockholm rite — eating well. Two excellent spots to sample both sides of the city’s evening scene are Bakfickan (Karl XII’s Torg; 00 46-8676 5800), an elegant diner beneath the opera house that serves traditional Swedish cuisine, and Cliff Barnes (Nortullsgatan; 0831 8070), a witty and boisterous bar-and-grill tribute to, I kid you not, the bloke from Dallas.

In the snow: I’m at the top of the ski lift, checking my bindings and girding my nerves for the first descent of the day. Beneath skimming clouds, pine forests drift away to the right of me, boughs heavy with snow. To the left is the Stockholm skyline, all domed roofs and angular spires. When they say Hammarby Backen offers city skiing, they’re not kidding. Reopened after a few years of construction-enforced closure, this is one of those local treasures that unites a city — Stockholmers love their mini-mountain. City workers rush here straight from the office, throw on a fleece and get a few runs in before dinner.

Every skiing toddler in the city learnt to snowplough here.

It is not, by any measure, a ski resort — four runs, the longest half a mile — but for an afternoon of adrenaline or an evening of floodlit fun, it’s a blast. Lift pass and ski rental for three hours cost £23, or £18 for children (8641 6830).

Getting there: Stockholm’s main airport is Arlanda, served by Sterling (0870 787 8038,, from Gatwick, BA (0870 850 9850,, from Heathrow, and SAS (0871 521 2772,, from Heathrow, London City and Dublin.

Where to stay: with slick rooms and a lazy location, 100yd from the Stockholm stop on the Arlanda Express airport train, Nordic Light (00 46-85056 3000, www.nordiclight; doubles from £100) is a great weekender’s option. Those with more mature tastes prefer the Grand (8679 3500, www.; doubles £294).

If you’re budgeting, book a cell at the converted Langholmen prison (8720 8500, www.; £47).

Tour operators: Travelocity (0871 472 5116, has flights from Gatwick and two nights in a three-star hotel from £172pp in January. Or try Ebookers (0871 223 5000,


VILNIUS IN winter is straight off the lid of a gift-for-granny biscuit tin. The city’s venerable buildings drip with icicles and fairy lights, and its courtyards feel full of snowed-in secrets. The horizon is hedgehogged with church spires, and little wooden shacks, apparently made from wonky planks lashed together with witches’ hair, groan under the weight of the snow.

But it’s not just the scenery that gets cracking when the temperature drops, it’s the nightlife. Warm hideaways fill with visitors and Vilnians alike — expect to clink drinks with the locals at every turn.

Even so, squirrelling away indoors all weekend can feel a bit claustrophobic. I’ve decided to combine my city break with a spot of serious ice-breaking among the lake fishermen of Trakai, a bus ride west of town.

In the city: it’s -20C, but I can’t wait to get dressed, get dressed again (layers are essential) and crunch out through the wriggly streets.

The place just zings with crumbly charisma. It is ramshackle here and revitalised there. It’s picture-postcard here and screaming-bonkers there. As for the people, let’s just say that if Vilnius were a biscuit, it would be full of nuts.

Old ladies, unperturbed by the weather and sporting fur hats modelled on polar bears’ bottoms, kneel in prayer before the Virgin Mary, who stares out iconically from a window above the city gates. Slinky fashionistas expertly negotiate icy cobblestones, trying not to fall over their high heels. They are probably on their way to one of the city’s rather cool watering holes — places such as In Vino (Ausros Vartu; www. I am happy to follow, and slip into a cosy afternoon spent sipping hot wine in front of a snow-softened courtyard view.

In Vilnius, you can strut along broad avenues of glowing boutique windows, then duck under an archway to find a hidden hobgoblin’s shanty. You can emerge from a five-star hotel, turn a corner and find a narrow staircase down into a cave, then proceed to stuff your face with beaver under the beady gaze of a stuffed bear. For basement-based local cuisine, I heartily recommend Lokys (Stikliu; and Zemaiciai (Vokieciu;

As night turns to morning, aim for Brodvejus (Mesiniu;, where there’s dancing till 5am; or Pabo Latino (Traku;, which offers swish mingling in what looks like a Colombian drug lord’s manor — though the only white powder here, of course, is snow.

In the snow: marooned in the middle of an oft-frozen lake,18 miles from Vilnius, I find the fairy-tale castle of Trakai ( Here, you can slip into ice skates and zoom about pretending to be Tinker Bell. Bring your own blades; tutu/pixie dust optional.

I have come to try my hand at ice-fishing, popular between late December and early March. It’s an ad-hoc affair, though, and, since I don’t have my own fishing kit, I just wander out onto the ice with a bottle of vodka. Maybe one of the hardy local nutters will let me borrow their hole. I’m soon dangling a line baited by a man with live maggots in his mouth. I don’t catch much — just a few Russian swearwords — but head back to town illumined by the warm glow of adventure.

Buses from Vilnius to Trakai depart every couple of hours and cost about 80p. For more extreme icy action, you can leave the vodka at home, grab a souped-up Soviet banger (courtesy of Force One; 00 370 6112 7427, and power-slide out onto a frozen lake with your mates.

Getting there: AirBaltic (0871 288 7416, and FlyLAL (0129 357 9900, fly to Vilnius from Gatwick and Dublin; from about £100. Aer Lingus (0818 365000, also flies from Dublin.

Where to stay: the City Park Hotel (00 370 5210 7461, has views over the Cathedral Square and doubles from £90. For a personal touch, stay with the friendly family at the Grybas House Hotel (5261 9695,; doubles £70). Or book a private apartment with a courtyard view from Litinterp (5212 3850,; £32) and watch the neighbours’ kids making snowmen.

Tour operators: Baltics and Beyond (0845 094 2125, has three nights at the four-star Mabre Residence Hotel for £209pp, with flights and transfers. Or try Regent Holidays (0845 277 3317,


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